This is the transcript for the podcast episode Interview With ‘Ender’s Game’ & ‘Spider-Man’ Concept Artist Robert Simons (Part 1) :: ArtCast #79 To listen to the podcast click here.
Chris: Chris Oatley’s Artcast, episode 79 – an interview with Robert Simons, concept artist for Ender’s Game and The Amazing Spiderman 2, part 1!
Hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of Chris Oatley’s Artcast, the show that goes inside the hearts and minds of successful professional artists. I’m Chris Oatley. I was a visual development artist at Disney before I quit to start my own online art school – The Oatley Academy of Concept Art & Illustration. Find more art instruction and career advice from some of the most inspiring voices in animation, games, comics, and new media at ChrisOatley.com. That’s ChrisOatley.com
Whether you’re into concept art, illustration, character design, comics, or storyboards, I’m constantly pushing you to create personal projects and pursue amazing collaborations. Why? The remarkable success of concept artist Robert Simons is why. Previously on the Artcast, I interviewed the director and composer of Project Arbiter, an indie sci-fi short film with a big budget look. Robert Simons’ work demonstrated a surprising level of maturity. He was only 19 years old at the time. Unsurprisingly his resume now includes concept work on huge films like Ender’s Game and The Amazing Spiderman 2. Visit ChrisOatley.com/Robert-Simons, that’s S-I-M-O-N-S to see his work and connect with him online. And in the Q&A segment, my good buddy Matt Core from Control Paint joins me to respond to a listener question about whether you need to move to the west coast of the United States in order to become a concept artist.
So Robert, take us all the way back to your earliest inklings of your own creative nature. When was the aspiration born?
Robert: Oh God. Um, okay. That’s going back really far. Well let’s see, I remember all the way back to when I was four or five, I drew a lot. And I loved doing it, but as I got older my dad was in construction and it was in a very realistic part of the world because everything he did I thought was the only job you could have as a kid. And I always thought art itself was always going to be a hobby of mine until I think about at the age of fourteen, and mind you I never really stopped drawing too. Like ever since I was a kid to that age, I always drew a little bit here and there but I remember around the age of fourteen, fifteen, I accidentally started pushing myself more to draw. And I started to find classes online with my dad because he was helping me look too and we found out that there was a school out there called Art Center and they have these Saturday High classes for high school students. And it just sounded like a really good idea because I previously had been home schooled for all of high school and I hadn’t had much interaction with a lot of kids during that time due to the fact I had dyslexia so it was actually affecting me a lot in school. I wasn’t able to read properly and write properly so I had to be home schooled in order to pass high school. And that allowed me a lot of time to draw but I needed to be around kids because it had been a long time since I had been around people so it was really awkward at the time. So my dad enrolled me in these Saturday High classes and from there I learned a whole other world of art I hadn’t learned before which was the commercial side of it. Like designing cars, designing products, and designing things for video games and movies and it blew my mind. I didn’t know that this world existed, I just started pushing towards that really hard and trying to be the best at it, or at least back then I thought I was going to be the best at it. I soon learned that there are a lot of other people that are a lot better than me out there, so it was really awesome though and it changed my life learning about that school.
Chris: Yeah, not kidding. And you had told me right before we started the recording that you grew up in Riverside, California?
Robert: Uh huh.
Chris: And so what was that like as far as, did it seem accessible to you and your family? I mean, Art Center is not a cheap school…
Robert: Yeah, well I grew up out in Riverside and my dad always pushed me to go to college, but we never knew what college I wanted to go to until I was like fourteen like I was talking about. Growing up out there, there weren’t a lot of art classes or anything so I was always sort of on my own just doing my own thing. And when we found it, I didn’t see it back then because I was a lot more young minded, but with my dad it was a really big thing for him because it was going to be a two hour drive every Saturday all the way out to Los Angeles to Pasadena to take those classes. But he was so motivated about the whole thing that he didn’t even hesitate, he just said yes and he started pushing me to take those classes and it was such a long drive that he would actually just wait out in the parking lot or go to a coffee station or something, wait five or six hours until I was done with class and then come pick me up and we would drive home for another two hours. And we did that for four or three years, we did it for a long time. Like after I had got into a groove of taking those classes, I just kind of taking them and he kept forcing me to take them. And the nice thing about the Saturday High classes is that they were cheap, and they still are pretty cheap in comparison to what the school is and in comparison to teaching a lot of high school art classes. They were like $500-$300 classes and they would last for fourteen weeks, and they were really in depth and the teachers are very good in those Saturday High classes too.
Chris: What was the transition like to Art Center College then at that point? How did that work?
Robert: Well when I finally graduated school, I spent about a year afterwards trying to figure out…it wasn’t a question that I wanted to go to Art Center, it was more of a question of what form of art did I want to take on?
Chris: That was going to be my next question.
Robert: Yeah, and that really determined how I was going to enter the school because I loved doing vehicle design and I loved doing product design, like designing cell phones and things like that. But my real passion lied in designing worlds, like ever since I was a kid I would always invent worlds and invent stories and start doing designs for them. And I didn’t know it then, but really what I wanted to be was a director. But I didn’t know it was that at that time, I just knew I liked designing stuff and designing worlds. It just so happened when I graduated school I started hearing rumors from people in Art Center that there was a new department forming within the next year at Art Center that was pushing directly towards entertainment design. And the name of the department was going to be Entertainment Design and it focused purely on movies and video games but it took in all of the strengths of transportation design, product design, character design. It took in everything. It was basically all in one sort of thing, but more of…
Chris: Scott Robertson.
Robert: Yeah, and then that year in 2007, I actually met with Scott Robertson at Comic Con and I was so nervous and still really awkward at that time, I couldn’t talk to him and so my dad actually talked to him for me while I stood on the side like super nerd at the age of 17. And he reviewed my work, I was sort of staying behind my dad and the situation was just so awkward but he basically just broke down my art in front of me and that’s sort of where it went. But I was so adamant with the idea of him remembering who I was that I emailed him afterwards asking if I could meet him at Art Center just to review my portfolio and talk about this entertainment thing and if it was becoming a real department or not at Art Center. I met up with him towards the end of 2007 and he happened to remember me because I had been emailing him and I made a really strong impression with him and he just went through my portfolio and he just told me there is a department forming and come back in 2008 and we’ll review your portfolio for that department. And so I spent the next half a year, like six months or five months developing a whole new portfolio, I didn’t toss out everything I did prior in my Saturday High classes, but I started redesigning a new portfolio based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And I focused purely on designing like the characters, what their diving suits would look like, what Captain Nemo’s ship would look like – the Nautilus, what the environment and the world would look like. And then I took it the extra step with my dad because I couldn’t write and we re-wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for that portfolio and we based it in World War II. In any case, I built this whole portfolio around that and I also took all my stuff from my Saturday High classes too which were based around product and transportation design. And I took that with me and went back to Scott and he basically sort of guided me, and helped me, and showed me like oh I need to improve this, I need to improve that, and I took in what he was telling me and improved all of that stuff. And then when it came time, which was towards the end of 2008, I submitted all of my stuff to Art Center and I got into entertainment design there. And yeah, so that’s pretty much the whole line up of how I got into the school.
Chris: Did you ever feel lost or frustrated in having to make those…having to address those notes from Scott but then more or less having to do that kind of back at home?
Robert: I mean the thing is, everybody goes through this, and there are tons of illustrators going through this right now too but when you’re very early on in the stages of being accepted and trying to get into a place that you want to get into, you’re going to face a lot of criticism and I took it to heart back then, and it hurt a lot back then. Now it doesn’t hurt quite so much because in my day job working in films and movies, I’m criticized all the time but as a professional, I just have to take it and correct my work so they’re happy with it. But back then, I remember there were nights where I’d come home and I’d just cry pretty much because I felt like I got destroyed, but then the next day I’d realize it’s like well no, he wasn’t personally attacking me. There are notes to help me become a better artist at what my craft is going to be, and I realized it was just being unprofessional during that time and that I needed to be open to his criticism.
Chris: You’d no doubt been learning some fundamentals and everything at the Saturday classes, so you had some sort of way to affect those changes that were maybe a little less abstract than someone who hasn’t been exposed to that kind of intellectual art instruction. Is that true do you think? Or…
Robert: Yes, the Saturday classes prepped me a lot because they’re Art Center Saturday classes so they’re prepping you for Art Center. But there’s still a lot of stuff and it’s hard now looking back because it’s been so long, I don’t remember if I was taught the things I’m trying to remember or not in Saturday High. But there was still a big learning curve for me when I got into Art Center which was really trying to nail down my perspective. And the thing is, you think your stuff is really cool and you think your stuff is awesome before you go into a college like Art Center, but the whole purpose of a college like Art Center is to break you. And it’s true, the whole idea is you show them your stuff and they’re like, “That’s interesting,” which is a way of saying it looks terrible but they don’t want to say that. Their whole goal is to break you down back to your roots of art and to build you back up off of what they know. And that’s the only way you can be taught in art, at least as far as I know is, and as quickly as I was taught, which was you have to force yourself to learn how another artist does their stuff before you can become your own artist.
Chris: Yeah, I completely agree and that’s how we always learn right? From the moment we’re toddlers, we’re copying and then we synthesize and we make things our own.
Robert: Exactly. And that’s exactly what we went through in Art Center too, that was some of the most difficult times, it was you thought you knew something and you may have known it, but not that any of this is 100% correct. Not even what the teachers are teaching is 100% correct, but it’s a lot more valid than what you already know at least.
Chris: In your little kind of vacuum.
Chris: Of your own little world. That’s great. It’s interesting, not to get ahead of ourselves here but the World War II meets sort of sci-fi steam punk futuristic. Kind of these flavors or potential flavors in this 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea project that perhaps are reminiscent, or rather Arbiter might be reminiscent a bit of…
Robert: Well it’s interesting that you say that because I don’t know if you were going to get into this later or not but Michael Chance contacted me back in 2008, at the end of 2008 right when I got into Art Center through my Deviant Art page. And at that time, my Deviant Art page had a lot of old work and my Deviant Art page is actually still up if you want to see my progression through Art Center.
Chris: We’ll link to that in the show notes.
Robert: Yeah, and basically he contacted me because my website was pretty much built out of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea stuff at the time, and he loved it. And he wanted Arbiter to be sort of based off of the suits that I designed for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And the Arbiter suit doesn’t necessarily look like those now, but it was a good starting point and it was a good foundation for what the project was going to look like in the end.